One of the gaping holes New England addressed with several moves this offseason was wide receiver, where the Patriots had little production to speak of beyond Troy Brown and David Patten. With the additions of free agent Donald Hayes and draft pick Deion Branch, the position should have more depth and competition heading into training camp.
Brown and Patten were the two most explosive weapons in the passing game, combining for 152 catches, 1948 yards and nine touchdowns in the regular season. They were also the only viable options at the position. The six other wideouts who played last season combined for 40 catches, 435 yards and two touchdowns.
More amazingly, the options were more limited down the stretch, when the team played its best. From Week Nine on, the wide receivers other than Brown and Patten contributed just 14 catches for 205 yards and one touchdown. The usual third receiver, Charles Johnson, didn't catch a pass after Week 11, and Fred Coleman recovered as many balls in the kicking game as he caught in the passing game (two).
Obviously, the receiving corps needed help, which arrived in the form of Hayes. Heading into his fifth season, the 6-4 Hayes brings size to a diminutive group, and is yet another free agent heading into what should be his prime, another building block for the future of the team that is capable of producing immediately.
Like most wideouts, Hayes took a while to develop out of Wisconsin. In his first two seasons, he appeared in 21 games with one start and had 14 catches for 332 yards and two touchdowns. In the last two years, he started 30 of 31 games and posted 118 catches for 1,523 yards and five touchdowns. In camp he should battle Patten hard for the starting job opposite Brown.
Regardless of who gets the nod, expect to see a lot of three-receiver sets on offense in which New England can actually create mismatches. With his size, Hayes is a big target with solid hands. Patten is a legitimate deep threat, utilizing his speed to burn defenses. He is coming off the best year of his career with 51 catches, 749 yards and four touchdowns, and by establishing himself in New England should be as comfortable heading into the season as he has been to this point in his career.
Brown is the focal point of the Patriots offense. Now heading into his 10th season, he is the longest-tenured player on the roster, but barring injury, still seems to have several years of high-quality football left in him. Long a clutch and dependable player, Brown established himself as a star by setting the team single-season receiving record (101 catches) and breaking the 1,000-yard mark (1,199) for the first time in his career, getting his first trip to the Pro Bowl in the process.
Despite heading into just his third season as a starter, Brown may well be the best receiver ever in New England when his time is through. Currently fifth in all-time receptions in team history with 321, Brown needs 43 catches in 2002 to pass Terry Glenn (329) and Irving Fryar (363) to move into third place. If Brown averages 71 catches over the next three seasons, he'll tie Stanley Morgan's team record 534 receptions, though Morgan's marks for yardage (10,352) and touchdowns (67) will be much harder to attain.
Beyond Brown, Patten and Hayes, the wide receivers are largely unproven. New England has nine players at the position, which is two less than the team has at the start of training camp each of the last two seasons.
Of the remaining six, Branch is the closest to a lock for the opening day roster. The first receiver drafted by Head Coach **Bill Belichick** in three seasons with the Patriots, the second-round pick projects as a similar type of player as Brown, a smaller, quick receiver dangerous in the passing and return games. Though small (5-9, 193), Branch is a strong route runner who showed good hands during both the rookie and mini-camps. As a senior at Louisville, he led the Cardinals with 72 catches for 1,188 yards and nine touchdown catches. He added one more touchdown in the return game.
The remaining players will likely have to prove themselves as contributors in the kicking game as well as the offense to earn a roster spot. Coleman is the only receiver other than Brown, Patten and Hayes to appear in an NFL game. Last season he appeared in every game with the Patriots after signing with the team before Week Nine. Though he had two catches, including a huge third-down grab for 46 yards that sparked a victory at the New York Jets in Week 12, his biggest contributions were on special teams.
The final four receivers on the roster are Jimmy Farris, Scott McCready, David Givens and T.C. Taylor. Farris joined the team after the regular season and was on the 53-man roster throughout the postseason, though he wasn't active for any games. He worked mostly with the second offense along with Hayes during mini-camp.
McCready spent the summer in NFL Europe and led the Scottish Claymores with 22 catches for 310 yards and two touchdowns. After a fast start - five catches, 79 yards and two touchdowns in Week One – he had just 17 catches for 231 yards and no touchdown over the final nine games.
Givens, a seventh-round pick out of Notre Dame, and Taylor, a rookie free agent, both have size in their favor. Givens (6-0, 212) may contribute on special teams and is at least a candidate for the practice squad. Having played for a run-heavy offense in college, he may need time to develop as a receiver. Taylor (6-3, 220) faces an uphill battle